The Gospel Truth (2015), by Caroline Pignat

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Pignat - Gospel TruthI must admit to having read no other verse novel, so I am not sure if it is the genre or Caroline Pignat’s particularly effective use of it that renders The Gospel Truth so haunting and so captivating. Phoebe’s story is told in her voice and the voices of those around her; the several voices reflect vastly differing perspectives on slavery on an 1858 Virginia tobacco plantation. The language is not so poetic as to be hard to parse; while the narrative flows smoothly, it is rich with moments of poetic beauty, “the best words in their best order” (Coleridge).

Phoebe is owned by the Master’s daughter, Tessa. Phoebe sits in on Tessa’s lessons, and is given Tessa’s hand-me-downs (including a scribbler), and so teaches herself rudimentary reading and writing. In 1858, teaching a slave to read or write was a punishable offence, for it might lead exactly where Phoebe ends up going…

Phoebe’s life is relatively stable—she serves Tessa; helps the cook, Bea, in the kitchen; and enjoys time with Shadrach, whose attentions are obvious and not unwelcome. Enter “The Birdman,” Dr. Ross Bergman, whose character is based on the Canadian physician, naturalist, and abolitionist, Alexander Milton Ross, who also appears (as himself) in Barbara Smucker’s well-known Underground to Canada (1977). Dr. Bergman is a “watcher,” like Phoebe herself, but Phoebe is not sure why it is he is watching her, particularly. Readers, too, wonder, for the lyric minimalism of the Pignat’s narrative shows us a multitude of truths, each partially masked by the internal voices that tell their stories as if to themselves. One of the refreshing strengths of Pignat’s writing is just this: the stories are being told, but they are not told to the reader. We feel as if we are eavesdropping on the candid thoughts of the characters as they puzzle out their lives. We learn that Phoebe is learning to read to try to sneak a peek at the Master’s ledger and find out to whom her mother was sold; we learn that Shad resents his brother Will’s attempts to escape, which he sees as desertion; we learn of the Master’s concern over financial affairs, despite external appearances; we learn that Dr. Bergman does want something from Phoebe… but we are not told initially what that is. Ultimately, with his help, Phoebe learns that

It takes courage
to see truths
that we’d rather not.

It takes courage
to speak up
when the way things is,
ain’t the way they should be.

It takes courage
to go beyond what you know
to the places you don’t. (315)

We watch as Phoebe reaches inside herself for that courage, and in the end finds it.

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The Gargoyle Overhead (2010), by Philippa Dowding

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 16.1.

The Gargoyle Overhead

Philippa Dowding has followed The Gargoyle in my Yard (2009) with a gripping tale of suspense, perfectly moulded for the 8-12 year old reader.  The story incorporates magic delightfully into a well-constructed, realist presentation of modern Toronto. Unfortunately, in this book, we do not learn why these gargoyles are alive while others are not, and for readers who have not had the privilege of reading The Gargoyle in my Yard, the rightful “ownership” of Gargoth, the gargoyle of the title, becomes a question towards the end.  Readers will look past these small omissions easily, however, for the joy of following Dowding’s engaging tale.
Dowding’s protagonists are genuine and interesting, and the balance of autonomy and dependence she gives young Katherine will satisfy both parents and young readers.  Gargoth and his best friend, Ambergine, are both well-rounded characters in the their own rights, and readers will fall in love with both of them. I would love to see an illustrated edition, as the body language of Dowding’s gargoyles is so much a part of their characterization.  Dowding’s plot moves quickly, despite the flashbacks to Ambergine and Gargoth’s years together and apart since the 1660s in France.  European and American history is blended artfully into Gargoth’s story, heightening the sense of the gargoyles’ magical existence, and of their loneliness during 148 years apart.  The ending of the novel, while not precluding further tales, leaves the two gargoyles free agents in their lives: a happy ending, but certainly not what the reader will expect.  Overall, I would highly recommend this story to young independent readers with an interest in magic and magical creatures.

Ghost Ride (2009), by Marina Cohen

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 15.2.

Ghost Ride

Ghost Ride is a gripping mixture of realism and the paranormal.  Sam McLean’s experiences when he moves to the archaic rural “Sleepy Hollow” of his father’s youth blends the angst of teens’ need for social acceptance with inexplicable experiences connected with his father’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.  Needing to be accepted in his new town and school—where he was loath to move in the first place—Sam ingratiates himself with two rebel pranksters, self-dubbed “Maniac” and “J-Man.”  His inclusion in a prank has seemingly drastic results, and he must choose to face the consequences of his decisions.

What renders this oft-told plot more powerful in Cohen’s novel is the incorporation of three paranormal elements in the text: ghosts, visions, and witches.  The obvious, but not heavy-handed, association with Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” prepare the reader for the psychic connection between Sam and his father’s past; the clues we receive are sufficiently subtle, the incidents sufficiently believable, to help us suspend our disbelief.  Sam’s experiencing of his father’s past helps him—not to avoid the mistakes his father made, but to take responsibility for his actions in a way his father had not done as a teen.  The seriousness of both characters’ experiences finally builds a bond between father and son, shared crisis leading to a shared understanding.

Grail: The Heretic’s Secret, Book II (2010), by John Wilson

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 16.2.

Grail

Grail suffers from the plague that besets all great historical novels: the reader cannot determine with certainty where the history leaves off and the fictional narrative begins.  To say that John Wilson has done his homework is not, I think, giving him sufficient credit. He has not only researched both historical setting and historical incident, but manages to convey, through his densely packed narrative, what feels to be the reality of life during the Crusades.  The historian in me despairs that we can never know, for sure, how close his account comes, but for modern readers, I think it more than suffices.
His tale revolves around four main characters: friends and comrades who must choose their own paths through the tumultuous political landscape of Southern Europe in 1211.  John and Isabella seek knowledge and truth in the deserted libraries of Al-Andalus; their childhood friend Peter follows the Church leaders in the search for the Holy Grail and the persecution of heretics; Adso, their soldier companion, has his own troubles, which lead him to the brink of destruction.  Their stories are entwined in the history of the Knight Crusaders’ persecution of the Cathar heretics of Southern France, and the search for both the mythical Grail and the apocryphal Gospel of the Christ.  The characters are engaging and consistent.  We value the wisdom of he who became St. Francis of Assisi, and respect John’s search for learning as an artist, but one wonders how the modern young adult reader will respond to the voices in Peter’s head and the stigmata on his hands and feet.  In this instance, the confluence of historical fact and authorial narration becomes problematic.  Most of the archaic thoughts and beliefs—such as Peter’s opinion that “[i]f God wished us to see the moon and stars as if they were in our hands … [h]e would have given us the eyesight to do so” (236)—can be interpreted within their historic context; Peter’s voices and stigmata, on the other hand, we are asked to accept as real.  If one can set aside the wonder and questions that this raises, we are left with a tightly woven tale of intrigue and mystery, presented in the most authentic of medieval armour and cloak.  For the lover of historical fiction, a series to be savoured.